On April 27, 1977, university provost, Dr. Charles Glassick, sent a short memo to the then-vice president of student affairs, William Leftwich, about Joyce Faison. Faison was a black woman, who worked for the Institute for Business and Community Development. The university-sponsored institute was located downtown on Grace and Lombardy Streets and started in 1963 to help resolve issues between businesses and communities with higher education resources. At the time, Faison had recently been promoted to an administrative professional position at the institute and Glassick believed that she could be “considered as a contact for SOBA (Student Organization for Black Awareness).” Glassick goes on to prompt Leftwich to reach out to Faison and determine whether she would be a suitable sponsor for SOBA. Glassick also mentioned that the Institute for Business and Community Development was moving to campus the following year and implied that Faison would be more available to them.
On the surface, Dr. Glassick’s memo reads like a good faith effort from the administration to help SOBA advance their organizational aims but the message actually underscores larger institutional problems. Having to look to Joyce Faison, an administrator at an off-campus university-affiliated program, as a sponsor for SOBA points to the lack of black mentors on campus. White men held most high-level administrative positions and the only black faculty member was Dr. Lorenzo Simpson, a professor in the philosophy department, who joined the university in 1976. During this time black students were still fairly new to campus and that was evident in the lack of support from administrators. Instead of being provided guidance, black students had to advocate for it. The black students in SOBA had to prod the administration to make moves forward on their behalf. Black students had to bear the burden of advocacy and simply existing in a majority white space. They were stretched thin and their organization suffered as a result. SOBA members often lamented having to alter their schedule of events due to lack of resources and low attendance.
This document represents the troubling incongruity between a university that wanted to recruit black students but barely supported the black students that were already there. Black students reported that administrators sympathized with them but had no plan for creating an actual infrastructure of support. Administrators had to look for someone off campus to find a mentor for SOBA because there were so few options on campus. However, there is also no indication that Faison asked to sponsor the students but rather an assumption that because she was black she would be up for the job. They had assumed domain over her labor. It is not clear if Faison became a mentor or if the contact was ever made between her and Leftwich but what is clear and in the record is that black students carried the burden of advocating with an administration that was reactive instead of proactive to their needs.
On this week’s episode, we consider the story of Irene Ebhomielen, a Nigerian international student who attended the University of Richmond in the early 70s.
This cartoon accompanied an article entitled “SOBA Moves Toward the Mainstream.” Published in The Collegian on January 31, 1974, the piece concerns the Student Organization for Black Awareness (SOBA), a student group started in 1972 whose purpose, according to the article, was to “make black students an important part of campus life.” The cartoon shows a person in a UR emblazoned suit jacket leading another person holding a balloon labeled “S.O.B.A” into a body of water marked as the “Stream of Student Life at U.R.”. The image seems to rely on an assumption that black students at the university were not part of the norm. That acknowledgment of difference does not honor the diversity of experience black students brought to the university community but rather posits them as outsiders that needed to be led into the mainstream. If the author of the article and the creator of the cartoon had thought more carefully and more empathetically about the fact that simply because black students attended the university they should have been worthy of consideration as part of the mainstream. As full-time students who lived and attended classes, they were in effect part of mainstream university life.
By creating and being part of a student organization SOBA members participated in a mainstream university activity. They went through the proper channels and had a faculty sponsor as well as a budget and a plan for future events just like other student groups on campus at the time. Even the way the founding members framed SOBA in the media was as a non-separatist group that wanted to be integral to all parts of the campus community. Furthermore, within the membership of SOBA, there were individuals who were part of other university entities that were more likely to be considered mainstream activity. For example, Stanley Davis, SOBA’s first president was a Richmond College Student Government Association senator and Norman Williams, the group’s treasurer, was on the track team.
I think the intent of the cartoon was to be welcoming and open-minded but the effect was tone deaf and showed how unfamiliar other students were with black students. The cartoon shows that there were those who were sympathetic to the plight of black students but the way they framed black students’ presence on campus was ultimately harmful because it made it seem like they were other. I understand how that framing might have fit better with a white student’s view of reality but by being full-time students engaged in the campus community in a number of ways it seems to me that black students were already integral to it. However, black students used this language as well which again I think was harmful to their purposes but the decision to adopt that language might have been strategic since they probably knew that others were apprehensive about their presence on campus.
This week on Expanding the Ivory Tower we consider the complicated history of integration at the University.
Etched in pencil on the manila folder containing the University records for the Student Organization for Black Awareness or SOBA are the words “may be archival material.” Followed by an ellipsis, those words serve as the entry point for materials concerning a group started in 1973 by black students who hoped to incorporate themselves into the university community. Their first treasurer, Norman Williams, is quoted in The Collegian as saying “‘we hope that by forming this club we can become more of a part of this university and not just another club. We want to take part in University affairs, helping out in any way we can.’” Williams and other members of SOBA emphasized that they did not intend for the group to be separatist. Instead, the founders hoped that SOBA would help black students be significantly involved in university activities. Rather than having one or two students be tokens of the community, members of the group could stand in solidarity with each other and participate in mainstream activities together.
SOBA was formed five years after the arrival of the University’s first black residential student, Barry Greene, in 1968. At the time black students made up less than one percent of the entire student body and struggled for inclusion. At that point, the university administration had not created an infrastructure to support their needs as a minority group on campus. The black students’ decision to form SOBA did not exist in a vacuum but rather in the context of other black students that desegregated predominately white institutions across the country in the late 60s and early 70s who formed similar groups. SOBA’s first president, Stanley Davis, claimed that the group sought to “make students on campus aware about blacks and what they stand for.” They adopted the language of assimilation in order to carve out a space for themselves on the university landscape that they palpably felt did not exist.
The aforementioned folder containing documents related to SOBA primarily includes correspondence between university administrators about the group. The correspondence takes on an apprehensive tone that reflects the hesitance administrators had in dealing with SOBA. In one memo, President Heilman worried the group would take on an adversarial role and in another William Leftwich, vice president of student affairs, feared the group lacked “real purpose and goals.” Other documents containing marginalia note black student suggestions for space for SOBA in the Commons and meetings with administrators. Had these documents not been archived we would have lost the record of these relations. We would have lost the background and context for events that matter to the narrative of SOBA’s existence. The fact that someone would question the enduring value of these documents underscores a larger problem with traditional archives writ large. The voices of marginalized people are not viewed as worthy enough for preservation. This case is a bit different because the voices of SOBA members are not explicitly present but the documents still provide context for the group’s formation and its relation to university administrators.